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The Hatch Act

Right To Participate Politically Is Limited


Passed in 1939, the Hatch Act restricts the political activity of executive branch employees of the federal government, District of Columbia government, and some state and local employees who work in connection with federally funded programs.

Led by a Republican Congress, the Hatch Act Reform Amendments of 1993 permit most federal employees to take an active part in partisan management and partisan political campaigns.

Nevertheless, Concerns about the political activities of government employees is almost as old as the Republic.

Under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, heads of the executive departments issued an order which stated that while it is “the right of any officer (federal employee) to give his vote at elections as a qualified citizen... it is expected that he will not attempt to influence the votes of others nor take part in the business of electioneering, that being deemed Columbia and certain employees of state and local governments." (pdf)

In passing the Hatch Act, Congress affirmed that partisan activity government employees must be limited for public institutions to function fairly and effectively. The courts have held that the Hatch Act is not an unconstitutional infringement on employees’ first amendment right to freedom of speech because it specifically provides that employees retain the right to speak out on political subjects and candidates.

All civilian employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the President and the Vice President, are covered by the provisions of the Hatch Act.

These employees may not:
  • use official authority or influence to interfere with an election
  • solicit or discourage political activity of anyone with business before their agency
  • solicit or receive political contributions (may be done in certain limited situations by federal labor or other employee organizations)
  • be candidates for public office in partisan elections
  • engage in political activity while:
    • on duty
    • in a government office
    • wearing an official uniform
    • using a government vehicle
  • wear partisan political buttons on duty

Additional Partisan Activity Prohibitions

Employees of the following agencies (or agency components), or in the following categories, are subject to more extensive restrictions on their political activities than employees in other Departments and agencies:
  • Administrative Law Judges (positions described at 5 U.S.C. § 5372)
  • Central Imagery Office
  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • Contract Appeals Boards (positions described at 5 U.S.C. § 5372a)
  • Criminal Division (Department of Justice)
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Federal Elections Commission
  • Merit Systems Protection Board
  • National Security Agency
  • National Security Council
  • Office of Criminal Investigation (Internal Revenue Service)
  • Office of Investigative Programs (Customs Service)
  • Office of Law Enforcement (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms)
  • Office of Special Counsel
  • Secret Service
  • Senior Executive Service (career positions described at 5 U.S.C. § 3132(a)(4))

Penalties for Violating the Hatch Act

An employee who violates the Hatch Act shall be removed from their position, and funds appropriated for the position from which removed thereafter may not be used to pay the employee or individual. However, if the Merit Systems Protection Board finds by unanimous vote that the violation does not warrant removal, a penalty of not less than 30 days' suspension without pay shall be imposed by direction of the Board.

Federal employees should also be aware that certain political activities may also be criminal offenses under title 18 of the U.S. Code.

Source: Office of Special Counsel and Political Activity and the Federal Employee, pdf
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